Book review: Sting of the Drone

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Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke offers a nuanced perspective on the U.S use of drones to kill terrorists.  It depicts scenarios where drones are more effective with less collateral damage than alternatives.  It shows that there are many layers of experts and decision-makers involved in each drone strike.

It also presents legitimate causes for concern.  Should drones be used in allied, first-world countries where terrorist cells are operating?  You might say no, if the ally wants the U.S. to kill a terrorist in their midst who is plotting an attack, you may arrive at a different conclusion.

The book also makes the reader question whether the individuals involved in making drone strike decisions the best people to be making the decisions.  It would be beneficial to have more transparency about their deliberations, but the challenge would be keeping national security secrets secret.

As a thriller, this novel could have used some improvements.  The first half of the book is more of an ensemble cast than a story with one main character.  Eventually it settles on somebody.  I read the book two months ago, and I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.  There is a reasonably compelling villain, and he’s plotting an attack against America’s drone infrastructure, which is a great concept.  But the failure to ground the story in one main hero limited how engaging it was.

Another issue was an exaggerated treatment of drone operators.  There is a group of Air Force pilots in the book who take their drone piloting seriously, but quietly wish they were still flying “real” planes.  They become racked with guilt after some bad publicity about one or two strikes that Al Qaeda made to look like civilian massacres.  They start exhibiting PTSD.  That is all sort of interesting, but overblown.  Most UAV pilots are normal, well-adjusted people.

Overall this is a fair and balanced glimpse into U.S. drone policy and its ethics presented through a vivid story.  Just don’t expect to fall in love with the characters.

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Book review: Darktown illuminates

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Darktown

As an Atlantan who thought I had a good grasp of local history, Darktown by Thomas Mullen was a splash of cold water in the face. Very informative.

Two rookie black officers must investigate a murder case that the whites don’t care about, or worse, are covering up. In the first few chapters, Darktown reminded me of other police procedurals where the clean/honest cops (in this case, the black rookies) have to investigate around the dirty cops (here, the ultra-segregationists on the police force).  But the further the story develops, the clearer it becomes how severely the deck is stacked against the black officers.  They are dealing not just with discrimination in the police force, but when they’re off-duty as well, which complicates their unofficial investigation even further.

The book vividly illustrates the effect of segregation on the black community in Atlanta and rural Georgia in the 1940s. Highly recommended.